Calories Don’t Count for This Guy

I’m not always proud of my Congressional Representative, but I will say that, at age 70, Emanuel Cleaver looks pretty fit and healthy. On that count, I wouldn’t be quite so thrilled with having Rep. John Shimkus voting on my behalf in Washington. Why? Let me explain.

301_5-calorie-counting-myths_flashIn a recent hearing regarding a bill that would require multi-site restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, Rep. Shimkus uttered these words for the ages.

“I don’t think I’ve ever looked for calorie numbers on anything I’ve consumed. And I betcha I’m in the majority of Americans,” Shimkus said. “This is the perfect example of nanny state, of a national government telling individual citizens and saying what is best for them.”

Take a look at the Congressman’s photo and you might be inclined to join me in saying, “Maybe you should!” But really that’s not fair. Shimkus looks, in some pictures, as if he’s carrying some extra pounds, but in others seems to be in reasonable shape. And in the final analysis, whether Shimkus is a porker or a rail should be irrelevant to whether this proposed bill is a good or bad idea.

While a bill that requires Hardee’s to post the calorie count of their Monster Burgers might be a nuisance, it is not nearly as intrusive (nor as silly) as the big-soda ban in New York. If seeing those numbers on a menu help me to make smarter choices or to persuade me to step away from the triple cheeseburger, then they’re worth the tiny bit of effort that the chains exert in coming up with them.

On the other hand, such signs won’t fit all situations. Think of the number of different combinations a person can have in a Chipotle lunch. Is a sign reading, “Calorie Count: 300-1300” really going to be the game-changer in fighting obesity?

Give me information, please, Rep. Shimkus. You won’t have to read the signs, but they’ll give me some power. Such power is good, but it doesn’t free me from the responsibility of having a bit of knowledge.


I Am Fed Up!

Belly FatPenny and I spent a rainy Saturday morning recently, sprawled on our couch watching a movie on Netflix. But it’s okay. We weren’t eating Doritos out of the bag, and the movie was a documentary, the film equivalent of eating kale. Daughter #1 had recommended this movie, the Katie Couric vehicle, Fed Up, which I assumed would be another version of Food, Inc.I don’t know how many people have gone back to the well of Whole Foods self righteousness to wring our collective hands over the American diet, but apparently the genre is to documentaries what comic-book movies are to movies with explosions. This one, sprawling all over the subject matter (but without a mention of Monsanto as the paragon of all evil), covered a good deal of the same fare as the previous incarnations.

What Fed Up does that is new is to point a fairly convincing finger at sugar as the biggest single problem in the American obesity problem. (Can we ever mention that word without putting “epidemic” after it?) On the other hand, it doesn’t really offer a great number of answers to the problem.

But I’m fed up with part of the message of Fed Up, which seems to blame every actor imaginable for our fat selves. The food companies are to blame. The schools are to blame. The food lobbyists are to blame. The wimpy Department of Agriculture is to blame. Former President Clinton is not to blame, apparently, and is interviewed mouthing commonplaces several times, although it’s not clear why his administration is absolved when those before and after him are held to account. Even Michelle Obama is criticized for allowing her anti-obesity message to shift from foods to exercise.

Everyone is guilty, it seems, except for the people who actually put the food in their mouths and, in the case of the children, their parents. We see a 400-pound fourteen-year-old going in for bariatric surgery, while his parents, both of whom are fairly fleshy, worry about him. Can we just agree that all of the eating that gets a person to that size doesn’t take place at school?

This film ridicules the narrative of the “nanny state,” but in suggesting that government is the answer in reining in the horrible greed of food companies, she ignores an inconvenient truth. You don’t need a nanny state when the actual nanny is doing the job. The problem is that too many American families are making a nanny out of the school and the television . In the end, you don’t need a nanny when the parents are on duty. Certainly there’s a place for the government to take a hand, but let’s not jettison personal responsibility.

(Mis)Counting Calories

Whole Grain BreadsI knew that the whole MyFitnessPal calories in vs. calories out thing was too simple to be right. Just when I credited my 53-pound weight loss to paying attention to my net calorie intake, I find out that I’ve gotten it all wrong. It seems that there’s a “degree of difficulty.”

Scientists have long measured calorie content by burning a carefully measured portion of the food in a special device, a calorimeter. As it turns out, your body doesn’t use fire to break down food, and the system it does use produces different reality from what the calorimeter would suggest. According to an article in The New York Times:

The system is most accurate when the foods are easily digested and all of their energy is made available to the body — as they are when consuming highly processed carbohydrates. But in the past few decades, scientists have begun to understand that a substantial number of calories are lost in the effort to digest food. For example, meat and nuts are harder to break down, and so the body expends energy trying to digest them.

This is yet another great reason to eat more whole foods and fewer processed gunk. Since the processed stuff–say white bread vs. whole grain bread–requires more effort for your body to digest, two servings of bread with the same supposed calorie content will have a different impact on your body.

Senior Happy Meals

happy old guy
Not one of my in-laws

My in-laws, both in their seventies, don’t eat all that well. Part of the issue is cultural, both of them having been brought up where if it wasn’t fried, it wasn’t food, but part of it is age-related. Knocking together a salad or a pot of pasta or somesuch, a simple task when you’re 30 or 50, can become a major ordeal for the older person. My mother, 94 years old, struggles with opening jars and lifting some bowls, even when they’re empty. A story on NPR recently brought this nutritional challenge to my mind.

A healthy diet is good for everyone. But as people get older, cooking nutritious food can become difficult and sometimes physically impossible. A pot of soup can be too heavy to lift. And there’s all that time standing on your feet. It’s one of the reasons that people move into assisted living facilities.

The story revolved around a company that sends chefs into senior’s homes to cook a week worth of meals for them. Having listened while driving, I didn’t have pen and paper at hand, but the cash flow of this business didn’t seem to make sense. If I’m figuring it right, these chefs are bringing in a whopping $360 a week on average. Presumably they have a restaurant job to rely on.

But since Chefs for Seniors has not made it to most cities around the country, the great senior nutrition challenge falls to the seniors themselves or their friends and families.

What a great service a church or just a good neighbor could do by ensuring that not only do healthy groceries make it into the house but that those foods are prepared or accessible. What does that mean? Perhaps it means pre-packaging some meals that can be popped into the microwave. Maybe it involves cutting up produce. It might simply require putting some pickles or other jar-dwelling food into something easier to open.

When Jesus said “Feed my sheep,” He did not mean primarily to feed them food, but I’m fairly certain that He didn’t intend to neglect that. Preparing healthy food for those who struggle to do it themselves might not lengthen their lives but it will surely improve their lives and bless you at the same time.

Why Health Headlines Seem Unbalanced

scaleAn article on U.S. News plays on a prurient movie and some fairly common sense dietary advice to fill a writer’s assignment. The author, Janet Helm, doesn’t give us the full fifty shades of grey when it comes to nutrition but stops (mercifully perhaps) at five. The basic premise is this:

People frequently speak about food in absolutes – this food is bad, or this diet is best. Well, it’s not that simple: Nutrition is not always so black or white.

I probably sound a bit dismissive of Ms. Helm’s comments, but that really isn’t the case. She is, after all a well trained dietician, a credential that inclines me to consider her innocent until proven guilty.

Why is she able to write an article that basically says “moderation in everything” and have it seem worthy of publication? I’d suggest that there are three reasons for that, and they get to the heart of our intelligent handling of health advice.

1. Extremes scream.

Which article are you more apt to read? Which TV news teaser are you more apt to wait through the commercials to watch? “Nutritionists say a balanced diet is important” or “If you eat Fettuccine Alfredo, make sure your cardiologist is on call.” This last pronouncement was perhaps the most absurd statement ever made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In a communications environment cluttered with all sorts of noise and competing stimuli, it’s understandable that people feel the need to scream. Unfortunately, that screaming sometimes means sending the wrong message.

2. You can’t sell moderation.

Everybody has a message to sell, but many have a product. Frankly, unless you are the American Produce Aisle Trade Group, you’re almost certainly not selling moderation and good sense. Instead, you’re selling this supplement or that diet pill. You’re declaring beef as “what’s for dinner” or pronouncing pork as “the other white meat.” “Got milk?”

Everybody is selling something, and most of them cannot make money by suggesting that the potential sales be split up among half a dozen providers. There’s just no money in moderation.

3. Health writers just don’t get it.

Finally we have to recognize that health writers, especially journalists knocking out stories on deadline, often got to the health beat not because of their high level of interest in nutrition or their scientific acumen but because they drew the short straw. “Gee, boss, I can choose between the White House, covering the war, or doing the health news? Give me the veggies!”

Many journalists do not understand science well enough. Some of them simply cannot read a scientific study well enough to actually understand what it says. They’ll read that consuming butter leads to an increased chance of developing cuticle cancer and not recognize that a small increase of a tiny probability is not nearly as significant as breathless statements make it sound.

I can’t say much good about the other shades of grey, but I have to applaud Janet Helms’ willingness to recognize that moderation in eating is something we need more.

Vitamins–No Shortcuts

Vitamins and SupplementsI’ll proclaim my bias right here. I have never been a dietary supplement kind of guy. I’d prefer not to get my nutrition in a pill. Still, it is pretty clear why people would want to opt for the convenience of the supplement. After all, why labor through all of that chewing to get your B vitamins or beta-keratin when you can down it in an easy-to-swallow capsule?

A recent study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting suggests that excessive vitamin doses–the sort of doses you’re only likely to get by swallowing pills–are a negative influence on our health. Dr. Tim Byers presented his findings:

“We are not sure why this is happening at the molecular level but evidence shows that people who take more dietary supplements than needed tend to have a higher risk of developing cancer,” explains Byers, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the CU Cancer Center.

Some specific findings of the study showed bad results in the form of increased incidence of cancer from excess vitamin E, folic acid, and beta-keratin. This shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise to us. God gave us a multitude of nourishing foods, foods that will, if eaten wisely, will provide all of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need and more. What fools we humans are to think we can effectively short-cut that process in the form of a pill.

I was never a “Flintstones Kid” when growing up. After reading this study, perhaps I should thank my mother for not jumping onto that bandwagon.

Be (Less) Salt of the Earth

A spilled salt shakerIn Matthew 5:13, Jesus admonishes us to be the salt of the earth. It’s a metaphor, but why would Jesus make a positive metaphor out of such a wicked substance. After all, as anyone who pays attention to the scientific brilliance of TV newscast health reports, salt is a silent killer. Before long, Morton will be joining American Tobacco in a walk of shame for contributing to the long, slow demise of American health.

But not so fast, scientists are increasingly saying. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that not only are the government’s recommendations for salt intake unnecessarily low but a too-low intake of salt can actually be a health risk. An article in the Washington Post presents the matter in some detail.

“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” said [Dr. Suzanne] Oparil, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.”

How could something as simple as salt stymie scientists for so long? The answer is that, despite the dietary claims that are made for all kinds of foods, actually substantiating how eating influences human health is notoriously difficult.

Not being a chemist, a physician, a nutritionist, or anything else likely to get me a guest appearance on Dr. Oz, what am I to do? I have a host of established scientists on one side saying the salt will kill me, while a host of scientists on the other side, perhaps less established but possessing more recent studies, say that too little salt is a problem. I’m stuck in the middle, hand paralyzed over the salt shaker.

This dilemma is yet another underscore for something I’ve long believed: Christian life is better than non-Christian life. As a believer, I’d love to live a long and healthy life, but I recognize that my hope is not ultimately tied up with the findings of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I can respect the way in which science lurches along testing provisional truths and moving from hypothesis to hypothesis, but I know that I can depend on the unmoving truth of the Word become flesh. The insight from the Holy Spirit, while not quite as specific as a recommended daily intake of sodium, will provide the guidance that I truly need.

While the nutritionists furiously rage together and the people imagine a vain thing, I’m going to focus on being the salt of the earth. Pass the salt, please.